After Navy pilot Lt. Chad Vincelette ejected from his failing F-14 Tomcat, he fell through the sky, thinking of his military training, and hoping he didn't die on his daughter Annie's fourth birthday.
"The Navy training took over and then I had some time to ponder … and just prayed to the Lord that I didn't die on my daughter's birthday," Vincelette told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
The 32-year-old pilot had been flying the F-14 back to the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk after a bombing run over Iraq on April 1 when a mechanical failure forced him and a radar intercept officer, who is from Georgia, to eject at 20,000 feet behind enemy lines. The two men were in a free fall over the desert for what felt like a long time to Vincelette before their parachutes opened.
Then, Vincelette had a slight problem with a line crossing over the canopy of his parachute. His training allowed him to make a midair fix.
Cold But Safe in the Desert
Hours later, Air Force rescuers later found Vincelette, shivering and disoriented but uninjured, in the dark desert of southern Iraq. He and the other officer had landed too far away from each other to communicate. Chad managed to pull on the thermal underwear and wool hat from a survival kit his mother-in-law had given him for Christmas.
It was the first confirmed report of a U.S. fighter going down in Iraq during the war.
A week later, Vincelette was flown back to Norfolk Naval Station, where he received a hero's welcome and was reunited with his wife Elizabeth, daughter Annie, 6-year-old son Jackson, and his parents, Liza and Paul.
"I came down pretty hard," Vincelette said. "I had a little bit of a sore ankle and a sore behind but other than that I'm doing fine."
He was very grateful that the Air Force rescuers came when they did. The other officer was also rescued.
Greeted With Tears and Good News
Vincelette, an instructor at the strike fighter weapons school at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, said he returned home to spend time with his family while the Navy investigates the mishap. He would not give many details about what happened.
During Vincelette's ordeal, his wife and children were blissfully unaware of what was happening. Elizabeth took the kids to a restaurant to celebrate Annie's birthday with her favorite meal, macaroni and cheese.
Vincelette's father, Paul, a former A-6 pilot, got the phone call while they were out and rushed over with the news. When Elizabeth arrived home, her husband's parents were in the driveway, and she initially thought they had just brought over presents for Annie.
"They greeted me with big hugs and lots of tears and told me he was safe and had ejected and been picked up," Elizabeth Vincelette recalled.
Her father, like Paul Vincelette, had been a military pilot, so the family was prepared for the possible dangers.
"When Chad was 6 he announced to the family that he wanted to be a pilot like his dad," Liza Vincelette recalled. "One Halloween, around the time of Top Gun, Chad came downstairs dressed in all his dad's flight gear. I said, 'Oh, my gosh. It's Tom Cruise.' "
Now, 6-year-old Jackson seems to be following suit, boasting about his dad's adventure to his friends at school and playing pilot around the house.
"He has an old helmet of mine that he likes to wear around the house," said Chad Vincelette.